We’ve managed our way through another story of Pern, the place that continues to find new ways to suck, despite the fact that we’ve been down this road multiple times. And now, we get to take a swing at the life story of who should be a dear figure to all of us, except for the part where the narrative has shown him to be manipulative and in favor of essentially holding a horrible system static and unchanging. Here we go again.
The Masterharper of Pern: Chapter I: Content Notes: Childbirth
We come barreling in medias res into the point right after Robinton is born to Merelan, his mother, and delivered to Petiron, his father, Menolly’s eventual mentor at Half-Circle, to keep a hold of, and we’re already skirting perilously close to NOPE territory.
He didn’t see the looks passing between midwife and her assistant, nor did he see the younger woman leave quietly to summon a healer. Merelan’s bleeding was not tapering off. The midwife suspected that something had been torn; the baby had been born breech, and was large-headed as well. She packed ice in towels around Merelan’s slim hips. It had been a long labor. Merelan lay limp in the bed, exhausted, her face white and lined. She seemed bloodless, and that worried Betrice more. There was such a risk in transfusion: despite the similarity in color, blood differed from person to person. Once long ago, healers had known how to tell the difference and match the blood. Or so she’d heard.
Betrice had suspected that Merelan would have trouble delivering, for she could feel the size of the child in the womb, and so she had asked the Healer Hall to stand by. There was a solution of special salts that in extreme cases could help a patient overcome the loss of blood.
So help us all, if this starts as a story where the mother dies in childbirth, there will be a wall of swearing that will last for pages.
It is a useful reminder, however, that we are back in the pre-AIVAS era of science and medicine, and so I am really surprised at this knowledge of salts that encourage clotting and blood production. Even as they acknowledge they’ve lost the ability to type blood, if someone were, say, worried about blood loss during labor, and they had the requisite methods to do so and keep it sterile and safe, why wouldn’t they just take a couple units from Merelan well beforehand? That’s blood that can safely be transfused back into her later, regardless of whether you can type it or not.
Mostly, though, that seems rather advanced medicine to have this concoction to deliver.
The narrative tells us that Betrice has a low opinion of Petiron’s parenting skills, and how lucky they are to have a child, given that Merelan has miscarried three times already. The Healer returns with the midwife’s apprentice, and the three of them set to infusing a clear liquid into Merelan, using needlethorn as the delivery system. Blood plasma, perhaps, which is usually safe to give to anyone, regardless of origin? That would require a centrifuge of some sort to spin blood into component parts. Which would suggest that the methods that Capiam figured out in the Sixth Pass survived to this point in time.
In any case, with the help of the women, and having her son nearby, Merelan stabilizes, and all three attendees agree that Petiron should not be trying for another child, even though it’s obvious all across Pern how the two of them love each other. They also agree to suggest fostering when Merelan will inevitably object to only having one child to care for. At this point, I remind everyone that Pern does not have viable birth control anywhere, despite this being a perfect situation for it.
Petiron is against fostering, and Betrice thinks it’s because he’s jealous of his son getting to spend time with his wife. Betrice’s husband, Masterharper Gennell, thinks it’s obsession over Petiron’s Moreta Cantata that’s using Merelan as principal soloist, and that Petiron does love his son.
Betrice firmed her lips together. “Loves him, does he?”
“You doubt it?”
She regarded her spouse critically. “I do.” She curled her hand around his arm. “But then I have you as an example. You were a eager to tend the first of our five as the last, and they have certainly turned out well. Oh, Petiron looks in the cot now and then, or at the child when he’s toddling in the yard, but only if you remind him that he’s fathered a son.”
Neglectful parenting is a thing, but this picture is in contrast to the Petiron we met briefly through Menolly’s eyes, at least potentially. Menolly seemed to think of him as a warmer and more interested figure, but then again, she also had significant musical talent, and so maybe he was kinder to her than he would have been to others.
Merelan sings well, to great applause, but Betrice makes sure that she takes a “restorative drink” in between performances and is unsurprised when Merelan takes ill after the performance is finished. She complains to Gennell that Petiron only cares about Merelan’s voice. Gennell disputes it by telling Betrice all about their early days and how obviously smitten with each other they were.
The narrative takes a short trip to remind us that we are in the time where five of the six Weyrs have been empty for centuries and even the Harpers only have cryptic entries and the Question Song as a result. Gennell makes a mental note to reinstate the song as a required teaching ballad, as we go over the speculation of what happened to the dragons and the fairly widespread belief at this time that Thread will not fall again. We know better, and that this is the end of the second Long Interval caused by Jaxom, Ruth, and a lot more dragons detonating antimatter engines on the wandering planet to send it out of Pern’s orbit, eventually. Still, it’s been nearly five hundred years since Thread has fallen. How many people would take seriously a dire warning from the 1500s about the return of something deadly in the next ten years?
Since Merelan isn’t getting better at the Harper Hall, Betrice arranges for Petiron and Merelan to take a teaching position back near where Merelan grew up and sends them with the Ritecamp trader train to get there, so that the two can teach and Merelan can recover.
Then she [Merelan] winked at her spouse, knowing very well that he hated doing “basics” with beginners, while she enjoyed teaching the very young. So long as the children were taught, it didn’t matter who did the teaching. As Mastersinger, she knew her Teaching Ballads and Songs as well as Petiron did.
[…Petiron is stiff at first, but seems to be warming up to everyone…]
He even enjoyed the nightly music sessions, for almost everyone in the thirty wagons of the train played some instrument and could carry intricate parts. Many had good voices, and he found himself conducting four- and five-part harmonies to some of their favorite ballads and airs, as well as teaching them the newer songs.
“They’re nearly as good as fourth-year apprentices,” he said with some surprise to Merelan at the end of the third evening’s session.
“They do it for fun,” she said gently.
“There’s no reason they cannot do it better and have fun, too,” he said, not at all pleased at her subtle rebuke over his attempt to improve the harmonies.
Okay, Petiron needs to loosen up a lot if he’s going to do anything with his life other than be tucked away in a corner composing. Now, that may be what he actually wants to do with his life, but this kind of monomania is not a sign of being able to relate healthily to other humans without significant training.
As it turns out, the two are alone in their wagon, with Robinton in a crib in a different wagon, and so Petiron and Merelan take the opportunity to have sex. Which is totally a thing that someone would do if they’ve been raising a child for so long and haven’t had the opportunity in a good long while. But that also runs the risk of a pregnancy that Merelan will have complications with. Again, birth control would be lovely here.
The narrative tells us that getting Petiron out of the Harper Hall allows him to mellow out significantly and appreciate things like hunting, fishing, long walks, and learning to be economical with his composition surfaces. Merelan recovers nicely in the fresh air and exercise along the way. Not too far from their final destination, the Runner Station that the train has stopped at hints that things out in the backwoods are not what someone from the city would expect.
Sev scratched his head. “They got odd notions, you might say.”
Merelan knew there was something that he was not saying, he she couldn’t understand his sudden reticence.
“Ah, d’you have something that isn’t Harper blue?” he blurted.
“I do,” Merelan said, “but I don’t think Petiron does. You mean, he might aggravate someone?” She smiled to show that she perfectly understood.
“Ah, yes, that’s about the size of it.”
“I’ll see what I can do about keeping him occupied,” she said, smiling sympathetically.
Everything went very well the first two days. The morning of the third, Merelan was entertaining all the children with game songs and teaching them the gestures that went with them, when a very tattered girl, eyes wide with delight, moved with surreptitious stealth closer and closer. When she was near enough, Merelan smiled at her.
“Do you want to join us?” she asked in a carefully soft voice.
The girl shook her head, her eyes wide now with a mixture of longing and fear.
“Oh, please, everyone else is here,” Merelan said, doing her best to reassure the timid child. “Rob, open the circle and let her in, will you, dear?”
The child took another step and then suddenly squealed when she saw a man charging from the trader’s wagon, right at Merelan’s circle.
“You there…stop that, you harlot. You evil creature, luring children away from their parents…”
[…a near-melee breaks out as the man is restrained from hitting Merelan…]
“She’s singing, ent she? Singing comes first, don’t it? Singing to lure kids away! She’s evil. Just like all harperfolk. Teachin’ things no one needs to know to live proper.
[…the struggle continues…]
“Harper harlot!” Rochers shouted, trying to free a fist to wave at Merelan, who was clinging to Robinton as much as he was clinging to her.
“She’s not a harper, Rochers. She’s a mother, amusing the kids,” the Station Master said, loudly enough to try and down out what the man was saying.
“She had ’em dancing!” Spittle was beginning to form in the corners of his mouth as the men pulled him back to the wagons.
They hustle Merelan out of sight back into a wagon while things get sorted. Merelan was wrong about what was going on, but I’m thoroughly intrigued by this development. Could we have finally found ourselves the long-lost and sorely needed contingent that doesn’t fall in line with the Harper orthodoxy? Well, we could have, if the narrative wasn’t immediately squashing that idea by insisting that these people are only that way because they’re backwoods hicks afraid that their children might learn about the big wide world out there and leave.
“We run into some real odd folk now and then. Some of ’em have never met a harper, and some don’t hold with singing or dancing or drinking. Sev says it’s because they can’t make wine or beer, so it has to be evil. They don’t want their children to know more than they did or you’d better believe it–” and Dalma gave a sour little laugh, “–they couldn’t keep them from leaving those awful jungles.”
“But it was the way he said ‘harper’…” Merelan swallowed at the tone of hatred in which the word has been uttered.
Good on you, Merelan. It’s easy to dismiss someone as just a hick that’s ignorant, but there’s more going on than just that here, and I want to know what it is. This is a potentially stellar worldbuild – what kind of folk belief system has appeared in the absence of the official doctrine? Why music as the evil thing, and Harpers as the evil people that bring it? Is there a dismissed or disgraced Harper leading this competing belief system? A Holder who had all his children go away to Crafthalls and never return? Tell me, dammit! The traders clearly know more than they’re letting on.
Also, personally, I would use “siren,” not “harlot,” for better connotation. Yes, Pern had all of its classical civilization education dumped before the second Pass, but surely that word would have survived in the meaning of someone who sings beautifully to lure people to harm, perpetuated by the Harpers if nobody else.
Merelan is appalled by the state of education out here, though.
It was true that there were really not enough harpers to do more than stop in once or twice a year, but Merelan was still shocked at the realization that there was a significant number of cots and small holdings where no one could read or count above twenty.
This is a normal function of a vassalage system. Literacy is not a valued result for anyone who doesn’t need to know how to read, write, and do figures — the nobles and the merchant class. There’s no incentive. You learn your trade or you work your land, you have kids to pass it on to, and you die. When the priest comes by to teach you your prayers, you learn them by rote and leave the interpretation up to them.
There are no further incidents on the rest of the trip, and Petiron is really enjoying being able to work with his group of musicians. Petiron also is busily sucking up as many variations as he can hear on the various ballads and songs, some that have gotten complex to the point where Petiron isn’t sure which is the original and which is the variant. All this notation, though, means he’s running out of tanned hide to make scores on.
To transcribe this, Petiron acquired some of the reed-based writing material that was a local product. It had a tendency to absorb so much ink that his scores were a bit blotchy, but he could amend that when he got back to the Harper Hall.
…when was anyone going to mention that Pern has rediscovered papyrus, at the very least, if not some form of paper, already. And why is this not far more widespread across the planet? Yes, it won’t have the same archival quality as hides, but most people don’t need archival-quality material for their everyday needs. If one wants a highly literate society, there needs to be plenty of material to practice with! Styluses and clay. Graphite or ash sticks. Wax, for fuck’s sake, although glow baskets might have meant that chandlery is a lost art. Seriously, there are a lot of ways other than ink and hide to do writing with, and yet it’s taken us fifteen books before there’s a one-off mention that the pre-AIVAS Pernese had something other than hides to write on! Auuuugh.
After saying hello to Merelan’s family, Petiron gets where her talent comes from, and is almost contemptuous that great voices in that hold are still in the hold, rather than having all been shipped off to the Harper Hall for their use. He’s also less than thrilled about their one-bedroom apartment, because it means the kid sleeps in the same room as them, and also he’s a bit weirded out by the fact that just about everyone bathes in the nearby sea. Now I kind of want to go back and see if anyone ever bathes regularly and collectively in the cold waters in the north. Because yay, all sorts of potential problems if they do.
Petiron is also a bit askance at the collective workspaces, and the communal child-raising pens, many already stuffed with toys, including one supposed to resemble a fire-lizard. Petiron says they died out a long time ago, but yields to Merelan’s insistence they exist because of the eggshells they leave behind that have been found. And is still not very attentive or loving to Robinton. But he goes about the business of organizing everyone into their groups and teaching, including an adult learner’s class in the evening. He takes a liking to Rantou, who is one of the evening class’s attendees, there because “I gotta learn so the baby won’t have no stupid for a father.” Rantou has the ear to be able to listen to a part and then play it back on reed pipes, and the skill to manufacture excellent instruments. He also has no desire to go to the Harper Hall, much to Petiron’s consternation.
There’s a useful note here in the argument, though, about music as a career for Rantou.
“But people do learn the Teaching Ballads and Songs, as they have here,” Merelan said. “As I did.”
“Only the usual ones, but not all the important ones,” Petiron said sternly with a scowl. When he frowned like that, his heavy eyebrows nearly met over the bridge of his aqualine nose. Though she never tell him, Merelan adored his eyebrows. “They don’t know the Dragon Duty Ballads, for instance.”
Merelan suppressed a sigh. Was it only people brought up in strict Harper Hall tradition who believed Thread would, not just might return in the next fifty or so Turns? Or was their belief merely an extension of the traditions of the Hall?
So tell me more about these competing beliefs, author. And whether that might have given rise to the anti-Harper faction we saw a small glimpse of. And whether people in places that don’t have a Weyr nearby find the Harpers somewhat silly for their strict adherence to traditions that seem very outdated at this point.
Petiron and Merelan continue to argue, with Merelan sensibly pointing out that a small population area generally doesn’t have extra people to spare for Crafthall education. Petiron counters with the idea that they sent two off to Benden Weyr, and Merelan dismisses that as special circumstances due to the great honor being Searched is. Then the narrative has Petiron blanch entirely at the idea of Robinton being taught swimming, even before he has mastered walking, because of the danger involved. Merelan thinks the trip has been fantastic, even as she wishes she could stay on longer, and that Petiron looks his best and has learned his most about what life is like outside scholarship. Now, if only he would be more attentive and like his son more…
As they sit on the beach, and the chapter is basically over, Petiron wants to have Merelan to himself in the shade for sex, and Merelan readily agrees. “Segonia has given me a potion that will make it safe all the time for us.”
Cocowhat by depizan
WELL. DID IT WORK? Because if it does, then there is, in fact, birth control on Pern and every woman and every Healer should already know about it and be able to prescribe it. Dragonriders have their own method, of course, but you are not going to sell me on the idea that there is effective birth control on a route that is visited by trading caravans, has Healers on staff, and that it has not spread itself completely through Pern, overtly or covertly. So I want to know…does it work?
(It does, or at least appears to have worked, peeking into Chapter II, because Robinton is still the only child of Merelan and Petiron.)