Sacred Dance: Chapter 9

Further north up the river was a market village full of giants who poked and prodded Awab some more and painted his body with red clay. Among them was a giant standing apart from the others, with long hair and light skin, though he was no albino. He seemed to be watching Awab with special attention, before he coughed and said, “Raniscīzū?

Panāhil,” said one of the darker giants. The lighter giant nodded and took several pieces of metal from a strand around his wrist and handed them to the darker giant, who pushed Awab forward with one foot.

The lighter giant knelt in front of Awab and said, “Sāmī ur albin fī dūrī natī’.

“Let me go,” said Awab in the language of Mar Gjol. “I only want to go back home.”

The giant patted Awab on the head and lifted him into the air. Awab struggled, though his hands and feet were bound, and the giant tightened his grip. He was strong enough to carry Awab with ease away from the market and take him northward for a ways before setting him down and untying his feet. Taking hold of the rope attached to Awab’s wrist bindings, he led him to the edge of the forest, where there were a few other light-complexioned giants standing by donkeys bearing packs. They looked at him and exchanged words in their own language, then stomped their feet and clapped, and spurred the donkeys on and began to walk, dragging Awab along.

They didn’t walk too fast for him to keep up, and spoke to him often, though he didn’t understand any of what they were saying. He couldn’t even tell if they were being kind or mocking; their light skin made them seem like ghosts dredged up to walk the earth past their time. And who else but a ghost would charm beasts into following without fear? Awab kept his distance from the donkeys anyway, and they in turn regarded him with hostility, once or twice trying to kick him.

They passed through other towns by the side of the river, buying ivory and incense. The giants of these towns stared at Awab and shouted at him, sometimes laughing and sometimes bowing. Sometimes they even draped his shoulders with strings of feathers and danced for him, while the ghosts watched in silence.

Only once was there violence, when a band of young men surrounded them with spears and threw strange threatening words. Then one of the ghosts, the tallest, shouted a lone syllable that sounded like one of the war cries of Mar Gjol. He took the machete from his waist and began yelling, “Tiqhāsū, zu’ūdū ur mātin rajanīnū. Hagū’, zu’ūdū ur mūrū waqulamdājī urnū.” The surprised young men stepped back, but the boldest of them remained where he was and laughed. Without pausing for a moment, the ghost spun on his right foot and brought the machete down through the middle of the attacker’s spear, breaking it in two, then dove forward and stabbed him twice, in the stomach and the neck. Bloody sword held high, he advanced on the rest of the young giants, who turned and fled.

The ghost bowed his head over his machete and said, “Tarinām. Tarinām. Hagū’, nukulalīam.” He knelt to wipe the blade on the body of the fallen giant, and Awab saw his lips move though he could hear nothing. The other giants bowed their heads too until he was finished, and then they continued on their way.

The next day after the battle, the trail rose and climbed away from the river, which was growing wider and muddier. They walked along a ridge, and Awab looked down at the vast swampy ground and thought that there would be good hunting there. Indeed a few of Awab’s captors often left the others in the late afternoon, returning with such prizes as turtles or shoebills. One day they brought back a pygmy hippopotamus they had killed, and laughing they pointed from it to Awab, their meaning clear. As the smaller animal was to the larger, so he was to them.

The path began to wind through the midst of rocky hills, where Awab on his short legs grew tired easily and had to ride on one of the sullen donkeys. He saw giants with herds of buffalo, just like Neevak’s brother in the stories, and then walled towns that baffled him with their size and height. Were there red gods here too, ruling these giants and granting them gifts?

After many days the lands became dry again and their path brought them back to the river at a place where it was broken up by countless islands and smaller rocks, rushing through them in a spray of froth and mist. On each side of the river was an enormous pillar of stone, and as the giants sat in the shadow of the right-hand pillar to eat, Awab studied the carvings on the pillar. They resembled creatures of various kinds, he thought, among which snakes were prominent, coiling up and down the rows of carvings. Did they represent the spirits of this land, or were they perhaps sacred to some god? Whatever the pillars meant, they were as tall as the greatest trees of the forest and he was certain that it had been some father of giants who had placed them there.
.They continued north from there, as the trail they had been following became a wide road and they passed other caravans of donkeys bearing heavy burdens. Now Awab saw great boats on the water, greater than those of Mar Gjol or the people of the starry skins, their bellies filled with rows of oarsmen. Little streams sprang off from the main river at regular intervals, bringing water to the fields on either side, where ghosts bent over their work. This indeed was a land of giants.

Ahead of them the river twisted away from a brightly shining mound, and one of Awab’s captors pointed and said, “Bidīnām. Tūjū scā fubuhazīam satinumbūam, larīzū ur pūrun albin.” When they came closer, Awab realized that the upper half of the mound was not earth but a great village, like the dwellings of the red gods but larger yet, and he trembled at the thought of the power that must make its home there.

The village was encompassed by a wall of stone, and at one of the gates a guard halted them. He seemed to recognize the tallest of the ghosts and they exchanged brief words before the guard waved them through the gate into the village. Paths wound up the hill between the buildings, but Awab found himself unable to pay close attention; not only was he tired from a long day’s walk, but also awestruck by Bidinam itself. He seemed to hear a voice in his head telling him how small he was, how little he mattered among these great people in their great houses.

At the center of Bidinam was a pillar like the twin pillars of the river, rising above everything else and pointing towards the sky. The ghosts seemed to be taking Awab towards it, and he felt his sense of oppression rising as they approached. Then to his relief they turned down a side street and arrived at a house (though it was in fact the size of one of the Gorob camps in its entirety) with pillars that shone in the light of the setting sun. A woman was standing under these pillars, wearing a gown that covered her from neck to foot. She smiled when she saw them and beckoned for them to enter.

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