Have you any idea how little sleep goblins need? Two hours
a night. Two hours! And the rest of the time, they race
around in a relentless rush as if everything had to be done right
there and then or the world would end. It's insufferable! If I
was naturally predisposed toward insomnia I'd have become an astronomer,
not an anthropologist.
This has been my second trip to the planet Virginia. Last time it was orcs, this time it was goblins. Other people get elves and dryads, but I get orcs and goblins. I'm not complaining - orcs and goblins are proud peoples with a rich and fulfilling cultural tradition - it's just...
Well OK, yes, I am complaining! It's simply not fair!
It's my own fault, I guess, for being an English girl. The United States Navy discovered the Atlantic wormhole connection between Earth and Virginia three years ago, so American academics naturally got first dibs when the invitation came to get to know the native peoples. The only reason any Brits were invited to participate at all is because Virginia was conquered by East Anglian colonists who accidentally sailed through the same space-time bubble some 350 years previously; their descendants yet retain a touching loyalty to the crown. As a consequence, people with infeasibly white teeth from Harvard choose to do their fieldwork in the Golden Forests of Lilitheth, and poor, hard-working saps from Oxford end up at Scab Mountain.
It's not that I dislike goblins - I quite enjoy the little fellows. Reports suggesting that they never trim their nails and that they eat their babies are quite unfounded. It's just that constant whirl of hustling bustle - I'm physically incapable of keeping up. They may live for only half as long as we humans, but they sure make up for lost time...
The particular tribe I was to study are known as the "Kagat Razh", which means something like "sunrise people". They live in caves on the Eastern slopes of Scab Mountain; to the West are the "Kagat Mek", or "sunset people". The two groups loathe each other deeply and passionately, and have done ever since (as their myth has it) "the sun scratched the land between them, the wound healed over as Scab Mountain, and both tribes claimed it as their own". Of course, examples of such quaintly poetic legends abound in the anthropological literature, and often they can be seen as rationalisations of a deeper truth. Unfortunately for me, this particular sliver of historical justification translates as, "these idiots live in fissures on a semi-active volcano".
Well, I suppose I may make some comment in my write-up remarking how their having a shorter lifespan means they don't have the same perspective on risk as we do. Indeed, if they're buried alive under a ton ash in the near future, it would probably become unavoidable...
Up until last week, things had gone reasonably to plan.
After much effort, I'd finished most of the information-gathering required for a formal ethnology, and learned enough of the Kagatish language to be able to hold a reasonable conversation during those rare and precious moments when someone stopped still for long enough that I could talk to them. I therefore had a reasonable framework for describing the structure, if not yet the foundations, of Kagat Razh society.
Essentially, they're patriarchal. They dwell in caves, and the limited size of these dictates the nature of the family unit: nuclear (i.e. two paired adults, plus their delightful non-adult offspring). The tribe is led by a chief, but it takes spiritual advice from a shaman. The shaman is always male - women supposedly "lack insight". The chief, however, is billed as the tribe's greatest warrior, and therefore in the past there have been female chiefs; most, though, are also depressingly male. Thus, when I arrived from out of nowhere and announced I'd like to stay for eight months, the present chief's reaction was one of anguish: being human, and therefore a good head and shoulders taller than he, I was in all likelihood quite able to thrash him senseless. Fortunately, I managed to persuade him through my assistant, Miki, that I had no chiefly ambitions, and eventually his unease waned. As insurance, though, I was made an "honorary man": if I ever changed my mind, at least he wouldn't lose face being beaten by a woman.
Gosh gee, what if I make one of the local girls honorarily pregnant?
All modern anthropologists acquire an assistant when they are undertaking fieldwork, and, as I casually mentioned just now, on this occasion mine was Miki. Although she is Kagat Razhish, she has grander ambitions than most of them, and was working in Resk market when I was introduced to her. Given the fact that, despite Resk's being the nearest town to Scab Mountain, it is nevertheless a fifty mile walk away through thick forest, perhaps the extent of her aspirations can be understood. I was specifically seeking a goblin from this region, because the population here is reckoned to be maintaining its numbers reasonably well; in other parts of the world, tribes have been gradually atrophying away as civilisation both approaches and encroaches upon their lands. Of course, any assistant I did have would need an ability to speak English, which didn't sit well with my "far away from external influence" criterion.
Luck was with me: interaction with human traders had given Miki a passable working knowledge of my native tongue (albeit basically as spoken 350 years ago), and so I was able to make myself understood. She was saving up, slowly, to buy her own market pitch; when I offered to pay her enough to buy five if she came back to her village with me until Winter, she didn't therefore take much persuading. Anthropologists aren't supposed to intervene in local economics (or anything else) to quite this degree, but I was suitably desperate to bend the rules slightly. After all, it's not every day you come across a Kagat Razh goblin who can speak your language, is it?
Miki was a great help. She arranged for me to have a small, "widow's grotto" to live in, close to her parents' cave (where she herself lodged). She organised me food, most of which I could actually eat if not digest, and she kitted me out in specially-made outsize garments so I wouldn't look quite as ridiculous among her people as I did in my safari jacket and shorts. I kept my boots, though: I didn't fancy strolling about on razor-sharp volcanic rock barefoot, as is the fashion among the Kagat Razh. No wonder they move so quickly...
On the whole, I enjoy fieldwork. I did have some early concerns this time, though, mainly due to my own ethnocentrism. For example, I was at first troubled that the population estimates I came up with seemed a little low for the tribe to be sustainable, but of course the studies upon which I was basing my conclusions concerned human gene pools, and these are notoriously small (there is less variation in the genetic make-up of two human beings selected at random from anywhere on Earth than there is between two gorillas in the same troupe). Goblins, as I constantly had to remind myself, are not humans: as homo sapiens inquietus they are quite able to interbreed with we home sapiens sapiens, but that doesn't mean they must have the same degree of DNA impoverishment as we, and therefore a smaller number of them could perhaps quite reasonably make a go of it. This natural proclivity on my part to consider all sentient individuals as human beings caused me endless such difficulties; I continually had to reconsider the validity of all parts of standard anthropological practice, which made my job even harder than it was already.
Also, I would have liked to have been able to see what the Kagat Razh got up to during the hours of darkness with a greater robustness, but my need for 6 hours' more sleep than they was rather problematical in this respect. I did alter my schedule to cover the middle of the night for a couple of weeks, but found that the Kagat Razh seemed to behave much the same whatever the time. This wasn't entirely surprising: they can slide back part of a secondary eyelid to see infra-red light, which means the world seems almost as bright to them at night as it does during the day.
Of course, if they didn't live on ground permanently warm from life-threatening geothermal activity, this wouldn't necessarily be the case.
So, ethnologically, everything was going as well as it could under the circumstances and I was poised to start on the really interesting stuff, the ethnography. This is where I'd get to work on the why rather than the what.
It was on Tuesday that events took the fate-laden turn that was to lead to my departure.
Miki materialised in my cave with a very worried look on her face. Now goblins may run about with the ebullience of 10-year-olds, but they're most definitely not 10-year-olds, so I unhesitatingly stopped what I was doing to enquire what was wrong.
"The menfolk are planning to raid the Kagat Mek," she said, speaking very quickly (as goblins do). "The shaman has determined that the auspices are good."
I was immediately excited by the prospect of seeing a hitherto unmentioned aspect of Kagat Razh culture. "Will they allow me to watch?" I asked, with enthusiasm.
Miki was horrified. "But I want you to stop them! Don't you know what they will do?"
"It's very unlikely that anyone will be killed," I reassured her. "Raids are just a posturing device. Sure, there may be some nasty cuts and a few broken bones, but they'll take whatever loot they're after and come back all full of themselves. Men are the same the world over." Or the worlds over, even.
Miki was shaking her head. "You don't understand. It's their intention to rape the women of the Kagat Mek."
I was stunned.
"Ten years ago, the men of the Kagat Mek came here, while our menfolk were away hunting. They took us all. They took my mother, and my grandmother, and my sisters. They tried to take me, and I was but nine, unable to bear children. The Kagat Razh are striking back in revenge, but don't you see? Ten years from now, the Kagat Mek will visit us again to pay us back for this raid. We're caught in a - " she struggled for the word - "in a cycle. You have to stop it. You can stop it. Can't you?"
My mouth was dry. "But what would you have me do?"
"Go with the raiding party. You're an honorary man, so they can't turn you away. Warn the Kagat Mek. Tell them to flee. If our menfolk cannot rely on surprise, they will have to withdraw. The auspices will not be good again for many more years."
I took Miki by the hand. "This isn't something I can do, Miki. I'm here only to observe, not to change what I observe. I can't - I mustn't prevent something of this significance from happening if it would have happened were I not present."
Miki was sniffing back tears. "I understand," she said. "Your work. If they were to find out that you told the Kagat Mek, they would not let you stay here."
"It's not that, Miki, it's... It's hard to explain. I can't intervene. All my training says I shouldn't. In the past, anthropologists - people like me - have intervened while studying a culture, and things have gone horribly wrong, even with the best intentions."
"But isn't rape horribly wrong?"
"In some places, no."
"But it is in this place. It is in your place, isn't it?"
"Of course, yes, but - "
"So why won't you stop it?"
I looked into her flood-filled eyes. "I'll... I'll try," I promised, not really sure if I could deliver.
My dilemma was greater than I had made out. In preparing to study the Kagat Razh, I had read a number of ethnographies of other goblin tribes authored by Virginian anthropologists, and "rape raids" were once a common feature. The authorities vigorously stamped them out 150 years ago.
It seems they did not succeed on Scab Mountain.
Although there is a fairly formal hierarchy among the male goblins, there is none among the females. The womenfolk can and do talk to one another as equals. What power there is comes from the fact that if a female goblin wishes to speak to a married male goblin, she must first ask permission from his wife. The chief's wife (if the chief is male) is therefore more influential than the rest, and is treated with due respect.
Now being an honorary male, I didn't actually have to ask the chief's wife, Likza, if I could talk to her husband. On this occasion, however, since the raiding party would be away for several days when "anything could happen", I thought it might be politic to clear it with her first.
Likza, it seemed, had been talking to Miki.
"You will be away many days," she intoned, as slowly and dramatically as she could - roughly at the rate I speak normally. "Ragah is a handsome man, and although you are an honorary man yourself, you yet have a woman's body and a woman's urges."
I wasn't sure my womanly urges would quite stretch to a 4'9" goblin, but you never know.
"However," she continued, "this may well be a great opportunity. You are aware, of course, what the aim of this raid is to be?"
"Rape," I replied, as calmly as I could.
"And are you for rape or against rape?"
The correct answer would have been that I could not rightly express an opinion in the context of the Kagat Razh.
"Against," I said.
She smiled. "Then I will allow you to spend these days in the presence of my husband, under one condition."
"You want me to stop them from doing it..." Of course.
"The man I called 'father' was not my father," she replied, with a sudden bitterness to her voice. "This madness must not continue."
"Then the women of the Kagat Mek must be warned."
I realised that I had just elected myself Official Raiding Party Sabateusse.
The male goblins found it rather amusing that I wanted to accompany them on their raid, being, as I was, somewhat under-equipped. They seemed to accept my argument, however, that I was entitled to go on account of my being an honorary man (not that honour had anything to do with what they were planning) and that it was somehow part of my job to record events such as this one. Besides, being bigger and stronger than they, I might even be useful; I could hold down two, maybe three women while they were awaiting their turn to be serviced.
Not if they'd all run away beforehand, I couldn't...
We set off early in the morning, as determined by the shaman. I was allowed to bring my camera with me, but not the flash; the Kagat Razh had seen what it did, and although it didn't bother them at all they were concerned that I might inadvertently alert the Kagat Mek if I used it prematurely. I insisted that I would never inadvertently do anything of the sort, but they were unmoved. Darn.
It would take four days to reach the Kagat Mek, through the dense, young forest that flourished on the volcanic slopes. For most of the men, this was to be their first rape raid, but they had hunted game in the area often, and knew the way well. Even so, they had to cut through the heavier patches of foliage at times. Because of my size, I occasionally had problems with higher branches, but I was easily able to keep up; longer legs mean longer strides, and, even though the goblins' tendency was to run all the time, I had no doubt who would have been the winner in a 100m sprint. I made every effort to conceal my potential speed, however, partly so I could conserve my energy (I would be getting very little time for rest, after all), and partly because if I did have to race ahead to warn the Kagat Mek then it would come as a complete surprise to any pursuers.
Late in the second day, there was an accident.
We had camped for the night at the edge of a clearing, where sleeping would be a fraction more comfortable. Fires were prohibited, lest they warn the Kagat Mek what was in store for them, so we were eating pre-cooked, salted meat that we'd taken with us.
It turned out that we weren't the only hungry creatures on the mountain.
This being one of those infrequent times when I was able to converse with the goblins without the usual danger of their suddenly running off, I was sitting on a rock asking one of them how the meat was prepared (while vainly trying to solicit details as to what it might have been in life) when I heard a scream so terrible and terrifying, I swear, it bit me to my very core. I was on my feet in an instant, running in the direction whence it had come, while goblins scattered hither and thither like disturbed ants. "Aiii! Aiii!" The screaming continued, agony overlaid with pure fear, along with shouts for help and hideous, animal-like snarls as if someone was being savaged by a great beast. I rounded a tree, and witnessed in the starlight a scene of distilled carnage.
A bear was crouched over the fallen form of a goblin, who was this side of death by only the faintest margin. Nearby was Ragah, the chief, his spear tormenting the bear enough to prevent a final blow, but clearly no match should the creature choose to change target.
Before I knew it, I was shouting. "Over here, bear! Over here!" If I could lure it away, Ragah could perhaps get to his colleague and stem the bleeding, maybe save his life.
The bear apparently decided that a tall, well-fleshed Englishwoman would make a better meal than a scrawny goblin, and turned.
I abandoned my efforts to hide how fast I could run.
I shot through the trees like a bullet from Concorde, the bear close behind on all fours. I half-thought that if I could maybe reach my pack in time, I could pull out my lighter and the flames would scare the brute away, but even in my panicked state I realised that I was perhaps being a trifle optimistic.
Nevertheless, I dashed through to the clearing and saw -
What are they holding?
Bows and arrows.
What are they going to do with them?
Shoot the bear.
Hey, but if they do that -
I launched myself face-down onto the grass.
A volley of arrows struck the animal head-on. It skidded, rolled, and flipped over to land next to me.
Six Kagat Razh bashed its brains in with clubs.
I realised I was still breathing.
I'm not sure what happened next. I remember seeing Ragah emerging from the forest covered in blood, carrying a badly-injured but visibly alive goblin in his arms. I remember being lifted up and proclaimed a hero, for saving the life of Ragah's son. I remember him saying, "thank the spirits you intervened".
I don't remember fainting, but I know I did.
Next morning, our band was depleted to the tune of three: Ragah's son and two disappointed (because it implied they had the smallest penises) stretcher-bearers, taking him back to the village. The shaman had prepared a number of special poultices to help keep the lad ticking over until the womenfolk could stitch him up, but he'd live (though he might get bounced about a bit on the way; there isn't a Kagat Razh word for "careful").
I was mulling over what had happened. I'd deliberately put myself at risk to prevent something awful from happening, from the goblins' point of view if not the bear's. Strictly speaking, though, I should have done nothing. Having a son mauled to death could have been some high Kagat Razh honour for all I knew, or his being saved by the efforts of non-family a source of great shame. I might have caused serious repercussions by my intervention.
Yet intervene I had, and it had been the right thing.
My moral justification for preventing the raid from achieving its objective went up another notch.
The closer we got to the Kagat Mek caves, the more the topic of conversation turned to what was going to happen. Although doubtless a lot of macho bravado was involved, nevertheless it was clear that the Kagat Razh intended to be quite brutal. The shaman foretold that there would only be a few men on guard, the rest being away hunting; the older, more experienced goblins were to take these out, with me assisting as a sort of scare factor (like an elephant in the army of ancient Carthage).
"Wound them, rather than kill them," said Ragah, sagely, from under the bear-pelt he was now wearing. "They must know what happens to those who offend the Kagat Razh!"
Like, otherwise the women would keep it a secret?
The subject swiftly changed to address what happened the last time the Kagat Mek were the aggressors, and I soon realised that the Kagat Razh were repaying like with like: the raid had been swift, cruel and, for those who had resisted, deadly. While all this talk served to spur the men to greater heights of vengefulness, it did nothing to dissuade me from my resolve. They obviously thought they were doing their women a favour by risking their own lives for their loved ones' sakes; they were completely unaware that gratitude would not be greeting them upon their return. Maybe this time they would even face hostility?
That was interesting. Perhaps, merely by my presence, I had catalysed a reaction to the tit-for-tat, centuries-old bickering anyway? What would it matter now if I brought about its end slightly prematurely?
And yet, my anthropologist's instincts still nagged at me: intervention is wrong.
Tell that to Ragah's son.
We were maybe quarter of a mile away from the Kagat Mek fissures, and the time for action was nigh.
I had finally decided. Sod my high-brow principles, no way was I going to let the male halves of two tribes of goblins gang-rape their opposite female halves every decade in perpetuity.
Wading through a sea of bracken, I dropped my camera.
"Quiet!" hissed Ragah, "we're getting close!"
"But, my camera!" I explained, feigning anxiety. "The back has come off! I have to repair it!" OK, so it was a digital camera and "the back" was just the leather casing, but they weren't exactly clueful about electronics. Or about anything made of metal, come to think of it.
"How long will it take?"
"I don't know, I need a tool, a screwdriver. I have one back in the village."
The general mumbling which followed this remark confirmed that they would not be waiting while I went back and fixed it.
"Forget the camera," said Ragah, "we have a job to do. Those women aren't going to fuck themselves, you know."
"But if I don't have my camera, what can I do? Taking pictures is the whole reason I came on this trip!"
"Well you should have thought about that before you dropped it, mud-fingers!" He sighed. "Look, if you want to stay here and wait for us, that's fine. Maybe you can patch up your machine or something and join us later. I'll just assign someone else to beat up the guards instead."
"OK, I'll wait," I replied, trying not to sound too smug. "Have fun..."
I watched them, waving, as they headed off through the trees.
The moment they were out of sight, I leapt to my feet and was running at 45 degrees to their path. I could see a jagged rock thrusting out from the woods - just the kind of high-profile platform I'd been hoping for. After half a minute I was at its base, grabbing for a hand-hold.
Yowww! I hadn't been expecting it to be so sharp! I tore at my tunic, managed to rip off enough to bind my hands, all the while acutely aware that I had to do this quick quick quick. Thank Heaven for my boots! I pulled myself up, found a foothold, and clambered my way to the top.
I peered over. A stream was running past, and on the opposite bank knelt a goblin, perhaps Miki's age, washing a pile of clothes with typical industry, yet seemingly happy and carefree, totally unaware that moments later she was going to be bashed half-unconscious and rutted by the men who had brought me here.
She glanced up, and I saw her face. She looked so much like Miki they could have been sisters! Rage swelled within me: I opened my mouth to shout -
I slid back down behind the rock. Maybe half a minute later, the first frenzied whoops reached my ears, signalling that the Kagat Razh were swarming from the trees. Their atrocity was beginning.
Head in bandaged hands, I sobbed my heart out.
I was back among the bracken by the time the Kagat Razh regrouped, some three hours later. My eyes were dry, and my face wasn't as red and puffy as it must have been earlier. "How did it go?" I enquired, trying to sound bored.
"Pretty well," Ragah replied. "A few of them, fought back, but we'd caught them by surprise, just as the spirits foretold. We had to be a bit rough with some, but then a lot like it that way, really, don't they?"
I lagged behind on the return journey. I wasn't in the mood to listen to the finer details of how to debase a woman. Besides, I had my shame to bear, and for that I needed the hollow comfort of privacy.
Upon our return, the success of the mission was sealed by Ragah's announcement of a victory feast. The men told their wives and sisters that they had avenged them, and the women said nothing, as women must. Likza gave me genuine thanks for saving her son's life, but the other female Kagat Razh shunned me.
I may have spared a son, but I'd condemned a hundred generations of daughters.
I was packing when Miki came into my cave.
"You're leaving," she said, matter-of-factly.
"I can't stay, you know that." Those notebooks looked heavy; was it really worth taking them with me?
"Why didn't you do it?" she asked. "Why did you let them -". Her voice was flickering as she fought the anger, the tears of betrayal.
What could I say? That if I had stopped it, the Kagat Razh and Kagat Mek would have gone the same way as all the other goblin tribes on Virginia? That periodic rapes were an essential part of their culture, and that if they were ever stopped then the separate gene pools would become too small to be sustainable? How do you explain that to someone who worships the sun spirit, eats bugs, and touchingly puts her faith in an other-worlder to set matters "right".
"I think I will take the notebooks," I said.
Scab Mountain will surely explode one day, but it won't be because of me.
21st January 1999: ltlwg.htm