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"Matah is Law" - Susan-Alia Terry

“Matah is Law”

Jun 21, 2023 | Writing

“You feel it. By tasting your blood, the bond was sealed. Now, what do you see?”

“You?” she replied, still a little high on the sudden relaxation and calm.

He huffed and pointed at his hand. “Look closely.”

It took effort, but gradually she understood what he was pointing at. Symbols etched into his scales. Flowing spirals, row after row. He made sure she could see from the spines on his triangular head to the bottoms of his feet, including his claws and the spike protruding from his tail. She could see faint symbols in the red sclera of his eyes, ringing the black pupils. His tongue bore the rows, even his teeth held one symbol each.

“When our young are old enough to think, it begins.” He pointed to a spot in the middle of the sole of his foot. “It is excruciating from beginning to end, at the age of majority.” He then pointed at a spot in the middle of his chest. “As we learn the Law, it becomes a part of us. Matah is Law. Those who cannot learn, do not live. Those who cannot abide, do not live.”

“You mean they’re killed.”

“Of course.” He continued, unaware of, or unmoved by, her horror. “Eineu may have chosen you, but now I will serve and protect you.”

“But don’t you resent being forced to serve someone you didn’t choose, someone not your kind?”

“Matah is Law.”

I’m re-watching The Mandalorian. There is so much that I love about that show, but I’m really hooked by his Creed and the strict boundaries in which he’s allowed to navigate. And I’m always struck by how “This is the Way.” can have different meanings episode to episode.

While there’s not a straight line from Din Djarin to my John, I’m reminded of John as I move through the series.

When I created the Jh’tishal I knew I needed a species without soft edges. Their originating species, like all others created by the Heretic sect of Creators, lived in Free Will. They lived much like we do, some worked toward the benefit of others, some worked only toward the benefit of themselves. But when Darkness claimed the earth, they evolved through that Darkness.

Anything in them that we’d call “good” on a vibratory level: love, hope, joy, was eliminated from their experience. They thrive in power and aggression. Darkness was the source of their magic, and they became adept in manipulating it to their will. They were constantly at war, outwardly and perhaps more subtly, inwardly.

When I named them, I purposely looked for something harsh sounding. Something alien. In my mind even their name Jh’tishal is an approximation, made with sounds a human mouth can make that’s close, but not entirely accurate.

I rewrote the above scene, many, many times as I circled in on the dynamics between John and Roberta, and what his change meant to the both of them. But it wasn’t until I came upon the idea of the Law being inscribed on his body, that everything began to click.

I knew I wanted John to accept Roberta as his matah because it was a part of their laws. But laws can be, and are, broken. Since his people, while not technically dead, are functionally dead—why should he continue to uphold the Law? I suppose he could double down as a matter of principle, but that only goes so far as the first challenge, and protecting Roberta would be that challenge.

To use The Mandalorian as an example, we’re seeing Din Djarin’s challenges, but then his Creed is reinforced every time he can touch base with The Armorer. John has no touchstones, nothing to reinforce his choice to uphold the Law.

So Jh’tishal Law had to be more rigid, it had to survive John’s circumstances. What better way to illustrate that than to have it become a kind of secular religion? It couldn’t be an actual religion because Jh’tishal see themselves as gods. There is no greater power than themselves.

Inscribing the Law on their bodies ensures that it never changes, and that only those that survived the process have the buy-in to continue the indoctrination to successive generations. Their society thus becomes an extremely rigid cult.

There is no love, romantic or otherwise, in Jh’tishal society. Members are connected by power and respect, manipulation and competition. Having a matah—a sacred charge—is an honor that everyone covets, but not everyone gets to have. The bond is made among equals, and reserved for those deemed worthy. It can also be a reward or used to foster an alliance. Because jealousy, and envy runs rampant in their society, the individuals involved don’t choose their partners. It became a way to cultivate cooperation between powerful members of society. Instead of eliminating the target of your envy, you become tasked with keeping them alive.

I can’t say that John is unhappy with Roberta as his matah—happiness is not an emotion in his toolbox. Much like Din Djarin isn’t happy that Bo-Katan Kryze removes her helmet, he’s accepts her because he has little choice, she is a Mandalorian. It’s the same with John. Roberta was chosen, she is his matah.

I have a feeling that he had one once, though I haven’t been given the circumstances. Maybe the war took them—no fault of his, war is tricky like that. Maybe they both hid inside Eineu, and he lost them that way. I don’t know, but I think I’ll be adding that idea to my list of short stories from this universe.

You can read more about John and Roberta in Coming Darkness and Dreaming in Shadow.

Until next time.

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