Sacred Dance: Chapter 15

He didn’t remember Balihagu’s words until late the next morning when Qhamifdir summoned him. Qhamifdir must have noticed his wariness, since he asked, “What’s the matter? Aren’t you feeling well?”

“Forgive me,” Awab said. “I am only tired.”

“You’ve been to see Ifi,” said the king, touching the amulet Awab wore. “Excellent. Ifi is strong and kind. My uncle will be pleased: he has always had a special fondness for Ifi. You saw my uncle at the feast a few days ago, you’ll remember. He told me he was pleased by your dancing, so you’ll dance for him today.”

Awab bowed in assent, and the king returned to what he had been doing, studying a scroll of papyrus and the scrawls that covered it. His mouth moved as he read, but sound broke from his lips only once in a great while. Despite his best efforts to stay awake, Awab dozed off, and was startled awake only when Qhamifdir exclaimed, “Waqalalu!” An elderly man was standing in the doorway with his head bowed to the top of his staff. “Dear uncle, the dwarf is here.”

As the old man straightened, Awab realized that it had been only respect, not age, that had bent him double as he entered. Waqalalu’s face may have been lined and his limbs thin, but his eyes were alive and his face was thoughtful. Awab did recognize him from the feast: he had been sitting close to the king and drinking little. “Craftsman’s blessings on you, little one, if a dwarf of the gods requires his blessing. No, you need not dance. It is enough for me to see you sitting in front of the window, a marvel from far away. Now then, nephew. I hear Jutundaq’s been to see you. I hope you don’t take his threats too seriously. You know what the priests of Hiltar are, with their taunts and their jokes. They will fall in line when they see that they must.”

“Jutundaq did seem angry,” said Qhamifdir. “But I’m sure you’re right.” He seemed distracted by something, occasionally jerking his face away from his uncle’s gaze.

“What is this? What are you thinking about?”

“Nothing important.”

“A king should not think about nothing important,” Waqalalu said. He sighed, then said, “There is one thing I needed to ask you about. Can you recall any god you might have offended, any law you might have broken, that might have withered your child in your wife’s belly?”

“No,” Qhamifdir said quickly. “I am surprised at you, Waqalalu. That sounds like Jutandaq talking.”

“Maybe. But we all wait and hope for the birth of a healthy heir.”

“No one more than I.”

This discussion of gods and children interested Awab, but now Qhamifdir and Waqalalu began talking about things that meant nothing to him, of ranks and measurements, and as he stared out the window he let their words blend into half-understood murmuring in his ears. After a time Waqalalu left, and Qhamifdir was quiet, the silence broken only by his finger tapping on his desk. “Oh,” he said, “you can go now. I think Balihagu wanted to talk with you about Tamhutilu.”

This last name meant little to Awab: it was the Place Under something, but that was all he could make out. He bowed to Qhamifdir and went back to his room, where he knew that Balihagu could find him if he wanted. He slept past noon, and when he woke he went to find something to fill his empty stomach. Wandering into the garden to find some fruit, Awab discovered Balihagu kneeling by the stream and plucking reeds to lay neatly in a pile. “What are you doing?” he asked.

“Ah, there you are,” said Balihagu, and stood with the reeds held under his arm. “You’ve seen Palatu and you’ve seen the king, but you haven’t seen what we prize above all else.”

“And what is that?”

“We remember our dead.” Balihagu met Awab’s eyes but seemed to be looking past him. “Though their soul may be gone to Hagu and their spirit to the halls of Ifi, we remember and honor their names. You have seen the city of the living but not the city of the dead, and I think it is time to remedy your lack. The king has agreed to give you to me today and tomorrow, so that I may show you Tamhutilu. If you wish it.”

Awab was surprised and flustered by Balihagu’s last words. Did he want to see Tamhutilu? It was hard to say: it had been so long since he had wanted anything except to return home. Finally he said, “Yes. I want to understand the Duri better.”

“Then come with me,” said Balihagu.

Taking the reeds with him, Balihagu led Awab down to the river, where he had a boat waiting. Before embarking, Balihagu pointed to the other shore and the mounds and cliffs that were visible there. “Turisu is on the east, where the sun rises, but Tamhutilu is where the sun sets. Our names are taken there when our bodies perish, to rest with the sun.”

“We remember our ancestors too in Gorob.”

“I don’t doubt it, but perhaps not like we do.” Once they were on the river, Balihagu paddling towards the other shore. “I am a servant of Hagu’, who takes the souls of the righteous into his care but leaves their names to the living.”

“What is a name without a soul?” asked Awab in some confusion.

“What is a soul without a body? Hagu’ breaks many bonds when he takes the soul away to his kingdom. It has always been so, ever since he left La and Iwa and broke his filial bonds. When he fought the monster Aluggra, he tore its feathers from its wings. When he carved out his kingdom in the underworld, he split stone from stone and Scama’ from Fili. Hagu’ makes things clear that the priests of Hilcar would prefer to muddy, so I love him and can never trust them.” He showed Awab his knife, whose blade was of a gleaming hard metal. “With this iron knife I will divide the good offerings from the evil and offer my ancestors what pleases them.”

They reached land on the other side, Balihagu bringing the boat onto shore not far from a group of wooden huts. Balihagu picked up the reeds from the bottom of the boat and went towards the huts, but Awab remained seated, looking around at the other people who were there, coming or going along a trail that wound through a gap in the cliffs ahead. Some disappeared under arches carved in the rock; most were carrying burning lamps, and when Balihagu returned to Awab, he too had a lamp in his free hand.

Awab followed Balihagu to an especially prominent arch with writing running up and down its sides. The interior was dark until Balihagu set the lamp on a pedestal within, revealing a large chamber centered on an altar, much like that in Palatu’s shrine. There were masks hanging on the walls, like human faces but cruder than the detailed art Awab was used to seeing among the Duri. Wings extended from the sides of the masks, and Awab shivered suddenly. He felt uneasy standing where he was and began to back out of the chamber, but Balihagu took him by the shoulder and brought him to a flat stone on the far side of the altar. Gently Balihagu told him to wait there a moment, then laid the reeds on the altar. His lips moved, though Awab heard nothing.

Balihagu used his knife to cut the reeds into two sections. One section he left on the altar, but the other he brought to the lamp and set alight, so that Awab’s nostrils filled with the harsh scent. Then Balihagu said to Awab, “Do you want to see them?”

“See who?” Awab asked, though he feared he knew the answer.

“My father and my mother and all my family.”

Balihagu knelt and with visible effort pushed aside the flat stone, revealing a hole into another room below. When he took the lamp and held it over the hole, Awab could see alcoves in the walls of the lower room, and in the alcoves were boxes each in the rough shape and size of a giant. He trembled again and backed away from the hole.

“Well, the dead are not pleasing to look upon. Imagine if they were not in their coffins: you would have a fright then, I imagine.” But Balihagu said nothing more to comfort Awab, only returned to the altar and his mumbling. Awab sat as close to the wall as he could and waited, wondering why Balihagu was the only one of his family who had come here. Among the people of Gorob, the ancestors were honored by families as a whole. He might suppose that giants would treat their dead differently, but he had seen the other giants walking the paths of Tamhutilu and it was Balihagu who was the exception.

At last when the sun was descending under the western cliffs, Balihagu said, “Now the halls of Tiqhasu are in shadow and spirits of the dead begin to wander. We should go back to the land of the living.”

These were not encouraging words, and Awab stayed close to Balihagu as they returned to the boat, the darkness falling quickly over the path in the cliffs’ shadow, the sound coming up to them of some animal splashing in the river. Then Awab thought he saw something larger than a fish, something darker than the night sky that coiled and stirred in the depths of the water. He halted as Balihagu continued ahead, then he mustered his courage and hurried after him.

“It’s good to have company,” Balihagu said. “I’ve made this journey alone too often. My ancestors will be pleased, I hope, that a dwarf of the gods was present to honor them.” Awab bowed.

He spent the next day in the garden, sleeping under the trees or sitting by the river building little model villages out of pebbles. Scaka came to him in the afternoon and watched him as he piled stone upon stone. Eventually he sat down beside Awab to begin building a model of his own, a square structure to which he added bent reeds as a kind of pyramid on its roof. Beneath the pyramid was an open space, and Scaka paused a moment in thought before adding a reddish stone in this space.

When Awab asked him what it was, Scaka shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t remember.” He set his hand on the pyramid and it broke apart under his touch. “Things come to me sometimes that I think I should understand, but then they run away from me, gazelles from the hunter. I am broken indeed.” For a moment there was something like hope in his eyes as he looked at Awab. “You are from the land of the gods, they say. Is there anything you can do to help me?”

Awab sighed, feeling as small and weak as he ever had. “No,” he said. “I am not a healer or a magician of any kind. I am just a hunter and a dancer.”

“Then dance for me, please. Maybe that will help me. I have nothing I can give you in return, so I am ashamed to ask, but please, will you dance for my lost memories?”

“I can do that,” Awab said, “and I will.” With renewed energy he stood, poised on the edge of the river for a moment while he considered which dance was best, and then he danced one of the mourning dances, that one which was not sacred and could be used even for the loss of a trinket in the forest.

When it was done, Scaka stood and touched his heart. “I remember no more than I did before, but I thank you anyway,” he said, then walked away with his head bowed.

The next morning Awab went back to the king’s chamber and sat in his usual place. The king studied him for a time before asking him what he had thought of Tamhutilu. “It was dark,” Awab said, and Qhamifdir laughed.

“Charmingly put,” he said. “Balihagu is probably the best man in my palace, you know, the closest to the gods. My life is in his hands. Ah, they say that to the noblest men Palatu gives the hardest homes, and this morning I’m expecting yet more proof of that saying. Wait and you shall see the hardship of my life!”

Awab did not quite understand this, but he sat patiently as Qhamifdir paced. Then he heard the sound of loud voices from nearby, and coming closer, though he couldn’t catch any of the words. An older woman with a golden fringe around her shoulders and chest entered the chamber, followed closely by a younger woman holding a bowl of sweet-smelling mud. “Enough!” the older woman was saying. “I’ve had enough of this. Qhamifdir, kick the priests out of the palace.”

“And what are they doing now, mother?”

“Upsetting my servants, that’s what they’re doing! Poor Runi’ refuses to leave her bed at all.”

“I will talk to Jutundaq,” Qhamifdir said, rubbing his brow. “I will see if Balihagu and Malaltiqha have anything to say.”

“You are king of Duri; your voice is like that of Tiqhasu; your father would have driven Jutundaq and his band out with a stomp of his foot!” Noticing Awab at last, she added, “But this must be that dwarf they brought you. Say a blessing for me, dwarf.”

“Vuvudru bless you,” Awab said in his own tongue, without much enthusiasm, but the woman clasped her hands together.

“Marvelous! Now I can sleep in peace. But really, Ninam, I wonder if the priests aren’t putting a curse on you.”

Qhamifdir stared at her as she took a dab of the mud from her companion and rubbed it between her fingers. “A curse? What are you talking about, mother?”

“You know how much I long to see my son’s sons. It would be just like the priests of Hiltar to put a curse on you and that Magharun woman.”

“Perhaps,” said Qhamifdir with a tight smile. “I promise that very soon Hiltar will have far less power in my palace. Was there anything else?”

“They’ll take away everything you have if you don’t keep them on a tight leash. And once they’re gone from here, there’ll be room enough for all the servants I need. Maybe an extra storeroom?”

“Yes, yes. Why don’t you speak with Waqalalu about it? I saw him earlier this morning in the treasury.”

“I think I will. I’ll make it clear to him what you want.” And she left, her companion in tow.

“That is that,” Qhamifdir said, sitting back down again before standing suddenly and facing Awab. “There is one thing I nearly forgot. I’m told you were talking to Scaka the other day. You seem friendly with him.”

“We are two of a kind in Turisu.”

“I suppose you are, after a fashion. But Scaka is, well, you know how Scaka is. And the veiled,” (Awab made the sign against evil) “the veiled have done favors for Duri in the past, but they are not our friends.” Qhamifdir stopped here, tapping his finger behind him on the desk. “Well,” he said eventually, “I imagine you’re as curious about Scaka as I am.” If he had been going to continue, he was interrupted by the arrival of a man who was bowing nearly to the ground. He said something to Qhamifdir that Awab didn’t catch, and with a frustrated motion, Qhamifdir followed him out, leaving Awab alone.

The king did not return until much later in the day, when he told Awab that he could leave. Awab went to his own room and danced for Vuvudru alone, and then he slept.

A persistent knocking on the door brought him out of his slumber. Thinking it must be Balihagu, he lifted the bar and opened his door, but saw Scaka there instead, his eyes wide in the light of the lamp he was holding. “I thought I should repay you for your kindness,” Scaka said. “The Petarir sailors said they would ask their gods to help me. If you like, you can come and receive their blessing as well.”

Qhamifdir had been right: Awab was curious about Scaka, and too he was uncomfortable leaving him in his debt, so he went with him out into the darkness. The guard let them pass outside the gate, where a group of giants was waiting for them. It was too dark for Awab to distinguish their features, but their dress was not like that of the Duri. They brought Scaka and Awab down towards the river, where not far from the water they gathered in a circle around the pair. One of the giants held out a branch and waved it in front of him. Another held out a disk of metal, and another an object that Awab couldn’t identify. None spoke at all, yet Awab found himself perfectly calm despite the strangeness and the darkness of it all. One of the giants raised a robed arm and with a sharp gesture threw something like dust over Scaka and Awab. Then the giants turned their backs and vanished into the night, keeping their silence.

“I don’t feel any different,” said Scaka in a whisper. “Nothing seems different. I am sorry. Go back to your bed, Awab. I will go back to mine and dream of rain as I always do.”

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