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monseratthefool
December 22nd, 2012, 04:42 AM
(This is the first chapter of a semi-autobiographical fantasy story. It's a full chapter, and if you lose interest and stop reading, I would love to know where that point was. All critique in any form is welcome. Thank you so much, and if you would like a review in return, please point me towards your work. Cheers!)

1

Dance of the Long Feather

Walok pushed the tip of his pointer finger through the small, metal bowl filled with moist ash. With firm gentleness, he pressed a black dot under the right eye of the boy standing still in front of him. With a graceful turn of the wrist, a smooth, curved line appeared under Arjuna’s eye, and Walok finished his work by placing three small black dots on the teenager’s cheekbone.

Arjuna inhaled deeply to let the musky, sweet smell of the micando ash ease the nervous energy in his belly. Outside of Walok’s hut, he could hear the chaos of a dozen drummers thumping their drums out of time, practicing for the ceremony set to begin in less than an hour.

Walok plucked a fresh piece of micando wood from his altar and held it over the flame of a candle.

“What’s that piece for, Walok?” asked Arjuna.

The old man didn’t say anything, but watched with soft, dark eyes as the stick began to keep a flame. He held the fire a few inches away from Arjuna’s forehead, and snuffed it out with a sharp breath. The warm, sweet smoke was billowing strongly from the glowing end of the micando stick.

Walok blew gently on the end of his smoldering red-crystal wand, making the ember glow brighter and hotter. A ribbon of smoke traveled on the breath of the shaman onto the broad, bare chest of young Arjuna.

“Tonight Arjuna, the dance will be performed with your body, but it should not be you that will be dancing.”

Arjuna’s face twisted in confusion.

Walok beckoned for Arjuna to place his hands together, and blew a puff of smoke over his closed hands. “Just as your hands receive things from the world around you, you must receive the beat of the drum, and accept the inspiration from wherever it comes. This is what will keep you dancing after your body becomes tired.” He separated Arjuna’s hands, and blew smoke across his open palms. “But remember to give it all back, through your dancing, and through your actions. Keeping it for yourself will only slow you down, and you make you heavy. Turn around.”

Arjuna turned his back to the old man, who was now blowing smoke between his shoulder blades.

“The micando cleans you of the doubts you carry with you. A man can poison his life and break his back by carrying around his fears and his regrets, and the micando is meant to free you from your burdens.”

The shaman continued, “If you really mean to dance tonight in the manner that the ancients intended, then you should make efforts to release everything you are carrying as you begin to dance. Within the first twenty minutes, the stress in your mind and the tension in your body should be gone. In fact, there should be nothing left of you at all.”

Arjuna felt the nervousness starting to return. “I don’t understand, Walok. I’ve been practicing for over a year, how is it possible that I can be worry-free at the same time I’m trying remember all of the steps I’ve been taught?”

Arjuna could hear a smile enter Walok’s voice as he answered. “The Dance of the Long Feather has been danced by this tribe for eleven generations, Arjuna. Why do you think we have kept this tradition so sacred in our culture?”

The young boy smiled. This question was taught to every Pachan once a year, each time with more detail and complexity. He answered confidently.

“On top of the great mountain Chakta, the Emerald Archon dances to keep the world in balance. His dance is so pure that he needs no food and water; the dance is all he needs to live. It’s his dance that makes the bees pollinate the flowers, and makes the streams flow, and we celebrate his sacrifice with the Dance of the Long Feather.”

Walok chuckled as he knelt to blow smoke onto Arjuna’s feet. “I wouldn’t call it a sacrifice Arjuna! They say that the Four Archons exist in a state of unending bliss, the closest any man could ever be to a God!”

Arjuna suddenly became afraid. “Be that as it may, Walok, I wouldn’t want to be the next Archon. I don’t know how I would bear the thought of never seeing my friends again. How could I ever be happy all alone like that, up on that frigid mountaintop?”

Walok had made his way to Arjuna’s front, and was blowing smoke again onto Arjuna’s heart, completing the circle. “Well Arjuna, that is a difficult thing to imagine, but the ancients have said that the Emerald Archon does not believe that he’s lost his family, but rather gained an understanding that all things are his family. This, we believe, is where he finds neverending ecstasy.”

Walok used the last glimmer of fire on the micando to make three red swoops around his head before placed the smoldering stump among the crystals, statues, and seeds on his altar. He stoops to open a large wooden trunk pushed against a wall of his hut.

“Your answer, Arjuna, was largely accurate, however, it is not only to honor the Emerald Archon that we dance. This dance is also the key to understanding one of the Seven Secrets of my brotherhood.”

Arjuna searched his mind to remember any of the Seven. He had listened to people talk about these secrets before, but he had never found any solid thing to hold onto.

Walok retrieved a dark green ceremonial sash from his trunk, and began to tie it around Arjuna’s waist. Arjuna rubbed the velvety fabric through his fingers and was reminded of the soft, furry moss that grows in the Smallwood forest underneath Mt. Chakta.

“The Secret, my boy,” started Walok as his tone became slower and thicker, “is that Every Real Truth Contains It’s Opposite, and the dance has preserved this secret for hundreds of years. As you know, the steps in the Dance of the Long Feather are very precise, but the trick is to find a way to dance these steps perfectly while also becoming a savage, wild animal.”

The paradox sent Arjuna’s belly once again into fits of anxiety. “That makes no sense at all, Walok,” he protested. “I don’t have the slightest idea of how to do those two things at the same time.”

“It’s quite the riddle, isn’t it Arjuna?”

“Has anyone ever done it?”

“Of course,” said the shaman with a smile. “And he continues to do it, with his heartbeat as music, on the top of Mt. Chakta.”


-

Two dozen goatskin drums were now sending the throbbing, captivating cadence of “Lalin’s Ascent” up the side of the mountain and throughout the town of Pachasan. Lalin, as every Pachan child learns early in life, was the very first Emerald Archon. Before he was called an Archon, he was the man who freed millions of people from the putrid grip of the Great Plague, a sickness so savage that a person’s soul was nearly visible as it ripped itself in horror from the diseased flesh of the infected. The thirty-three year plague, also called the Cataclysm, was the closest humankind had ever been to being crushed back into the crust of the earth.

Lalin’s legend of delivering the Pachan people from its tragic ending began at the moment of Lalin’s own supposed death. At only eighteen years, old, the Plague had wrestled almost all the life from his body, and his mind was nearly lost to the creeping blackness. This premature end was all but guaranteed, save for a mysterious vision that led Lalin’s soul back from the darkness of the Plague, as well as the simultaneous ascendency of three equally glorious beings in other parts of the world, thereafter known as the Four Archons. Lalin, as well as the three others, knew somewhere in their hearts that their efforts were useless without the contributions of the others.

As he began to recover, the light from his vision started to shine deep within him, and the cure to the Plague would shine brightly behind his eyes. When asked, Lalin admitted honestly that he had no words to describe what he had to do, only that he would soon ascend Mt. Chakta in an attempt to heal the infected wound in the flesh of life itself.
The Pachan had no reason to believe that Lalin truly possessed a cure to the Great Plague, but no onlooker was able to deny that something was profoundly alive inside of Lalin. In a time when hope was a pathetic candle flame twisting in a brutal midnight wind, Lalin’s steady light was the only thing of value left anywhere in Pachaswan.

On the night of the Golden Hawk full moon, Lalin began his legendary climb. The Pachan people, moved to tears by the boy’s courage, urged him on by beating a climbing rhythm on every surface that could be struck. On drums and stones and breastbones, the song lifted Lalin to the peak of the great Chakta, where he was never seen again.

In three days time, the sorrowful tears of the Cataclysm gave way to crystal, healing rains, and the valley once again remembered soft fruits, blessedly clean water, and the warmth of safety. Families were mended, communities grew their abundance, and the Pachan people buried hidden messages in the traditions they vowed to keep.

-

The patter of the small drums was constant and steady, like a steady leak of water incessantly tapping a stone floor.

The larger drums were beating an ancient, booming polyrhythm based on the secret sciences of the Shamanic Brotherhood, of which Walok was a senior member. The origin of the song was much more ancient than the Cataclysm, but on the night of Lalin’s climb, it forever became a song for climbing and dancing. Hidden in the drumbeat were crackling bursts of energy that seemed to suggest strikes of thunder, hailstorms, and the audacity to perform one’s own ascent.

The older boys, 18 and 19, stood in a circle facing the crowd of onlookers. Their bare feet were planted firmly into the earth, and their bellies and arms were flowing in waves and eddies, in an extremely skillful, almost imperceptible harmony with the beating of the drums. The dirt colored pants of the dancers were meant to symbolize the life-giving soil of the earth, with the green sashes invoking the place where the earth meets the sky.

The younger boys, age 17 and 16, were dancing in a larger circle clockwise around the older boys. Boom boom boom. Hands together at the forehead, stomp on the back foot twice, sweep the front foot forward, stomp with front foot and bend the knee deeply. Launch into the air, open arms, cycle back foot forward, land firmly with legs bent. Open arms overhead, stick out tongue. Stomp alternating feet, boom boom boom boom.

From behind a line of drummers, Walok watched as Arjuna danced into his line of site. The old man, having led this dance for decades, easily recognized the mental tension in the mind of the 16 year old mind. Arjuna’s steps were in sync, but were quite far being in harmony. Arjuna estimated that they were only ten minutes into the dance, but nothing had become easier so far.

Boom Boom Boom. Stamp the left foot twice, once with the right, balance high on the right leg, stomp hard with the left. Jump forward, land with both feet, shoot arms out like wings, bulging eyes. Lift shoulders, then draw neck out long and flatten the shoulder blades down the back. Bend knees, draw arms back, head like the searching hawk. Boom boom boom boom, Stamp twice with the left, once with the right.

Arjuna caught an envious glimpse of the younger boys, with whom he danced the last two years.

The youngest boys, aged 14 and 15, were now dancing throughout the crowd of onlookers. The throng of Pachans were seated on blankets and stones and logs surrounding the swirling ring of dancers in the heart of the town. Yelps of surprise and laughter would leap into the air as the younger boys would hurtle over seated spectators and tickle unsuspecting grandmothers. They would poke and prod the farmers and shake their bottoms at screaming children.

With laughter as their salve, the young boys moved through the crowd and mended the dry, cracked wounds of any chapped and brittle spirit. The community, not so secretly, was being woven back together.

Each of the young dancers began alone at the edge of the small town, which is only about a mile in circumference not counting the protruding base of the mountain. At the moment the moon peeks over Chakta’s edge, each boy shakes his rhythm out of a dried stonegourd and begins to dance towards the middle of town.

Children run out of their homes to dance and follow along, and young mothers laugh and pop candies or lingenberries into the mouth of the dancing lad. Eventually, everyone ends up together in the center of town.

As the boys danced, the crowd would chant and sing their favorite songs from the Old Language. The drummers would drum, and Walok would pray.

-

Arjuna had been dancing for nearly an hour when he heard the first man in the crowd scream “Ata! Ata!” The crowd gasped, but Arjuna remembered his instructions. “Even if someone is to scream Ata, you must continue the dance. It is of crucial importance.”

Walok looked in the direction of the shouting and saw that Ramlin was the one, a dark skinned boy with a streak of silver hair. Walok watched Ramlin fling his arms to the side, and saw a flash of a hummingbird instead of a 17-year-old boy.

Arjuna looked in the direction of Ramlin, but instead saw a bear dancing on massive hind legs. Ramlin’s cousin Dorra, instead of her older cousin, saw a swelling raincloud. “Ata!” she shouted.

Whispers and shouts came from the crowd, “A lotus! A rockslide! Ata!”

The crowd was roaring now, and Ramlin’s dancing tantalized every onlooker, screaming now “Ata! Ata! Ata!” The drumming grew louder and more frenetic, and Ramlin’s dance became faster, but there was no sign of the boy exerting any effort whatsoever. He was being carried, or carrying the drummers, or both.

Even Walok was joining in, rapping his staff against the ground, yelling “Ata! Ata!”

“Ata”, in the Old Language, meant “Him! It’s him!” Though it was a rare few Pachans who understood the magic behind this phenomenon, they knew that Lalin’s healing magic had somehow sprung forth from his transcendent dancing, and it was this mystery that they acknowledged in their cheering.

Walok approached the ring of dancers and motioned for the circle to open, and Ramlin mindlessly danced towards its center. Every other boy sat in a circle and pounded the ground around Ramlin as he flipped through the air, swirling, stomping, crawling and leaping. The crowd yipped and screamed its approval. The children would yell out excitedly what they were seeing.

“A panther!”

“A gooseberry tree!”

“A rushing stream!”

The drumming now was almost too much to bear, a storming cacophony echoing all the way to the Chakta’s Crown, where the eleventh Emerald Archon was, twenty-eight years to this day, still dancing the most sacred and powerful dance ever known.

Walok raised his staff, which was topped by dangling sandcorns, silver bells, and feathers. With each shake of the staff, a tinkling sparkle rang forth and joined the percussive force of the drummed melody, like the brilliance of lightning cutting through thunder.

The boys, hearing the sound of Walok’s quicksilver confetti, scrambled to their feet and began to pile wood to start the “Fire of the Feathers”. Ramlin, all the while, was now a canyon, a dragon, a spinning diamond. The fire was lit, then growing until it roared along with the crowd. The boys each tossed their sweetgourd rattles into the fire, and the seeds sizzled and popped in bright streaks, like tiny fireworks. The fire grew hotter and wilder.

Walok was shaking his staff madly now, and the drums were tumbling into a deafening incoherence. The Pachan were chanting, Ramlin was Lalin, the leaping fire made the nearby houses look like they were dancing in place.

Arjuna watched in amazement as Ramlin’s arms began to flap slowly, and the boy looked upward as if preparing to ascend into the sky.

“The hawk! The Golden Hawk!”

All eyes now saw the same living vision, and Walok thrust his staff skyward. The drumming stopped instantly, and the crowd became hushed all at once. The only sound was the feathery, tinkling sound of Walok’s waving staff and Ramlin’s slow, dramatic breath. A deep inhale as his arms pulled open and his chest bared, and a long, smooth exhale as his wings pushed the air away. The breath was so majestic, and wings so magnificent, that the crowd instinctively breathed along with him.

On Ramlin’s final inhale with wings spread wide, Walok put a thin piece of carved bone to his lips and blew sharply.

The piercing cry of his hawk whistle cut through the air and streaked past the mountaintop in the direction of the great yellow moon. Everyone, including Ramlin, look up to Chakta’s Crown.

The night was deadly still, save for the jittery crackle of the fire.

Then, from somewhere up in the mountain, the screaming cry of a Golden Hawk, and the crowd erupted in jubilance.

-

A little while later, everyone from the town had streamed into Pachasan Hall, which was the central gathering place for politics and performing arts, and tonight the location of the traditional banquet dinner.

Savory steam was rising from the long table next to the stage, and Arjuna craned his neck to try to detect the menu for the evening. It was a true farmer’s bounty, as Pachasan was the most prolific farming community in the region. It’s legendary soil provided food for all the surrounding communities, including Witscar, the largest province in northeast Sadutran.

Arjuna spotted golden brown dunes of roasted poultry sitting on a hoard of carrot coins steamed and buttered. A regal loaf of blueberry honeybread was made, as it always was, by Ramlin’s mother Sunyin and decorated with Arjuna’s favorite sugary blueberry glaze. Mismatched pots held mystery soups laden with bobbing potatoes and beans. Platters of salted stalks of asparagus and green beans were mixed up with beets and almonds and sautéed greens.

Arjuna, in an attempt to remain calm in a storm of demanding hunger, turned his attention from the buffet to the crowded room in front of him. This was the largest wooden table in the room, and was reserved for Walok, Ramlin, Ramlin’s parents, the six senior members of Pachasan’s council, and Walok’s own adopted son, the young Arjuna.

The head councilwoman, Maituli of the Smallwoods, was chatting busily to the other members of the council about exchange rates of sacks of potatoes being sent to Witscar in exchange for a new stock of iron farming equipment.

Ramlin’s father, oblivious to the politicking, enthusiastically watched his wife chatter incessant questions into Ramlin’s ear, begging the boy to give words to his experience.

Ramlin forced a smile, but remained subdued and offered only vague mutterings, which only caused his mother to ask increasingly inane questions. (dd questions) Ramlin shot a pleading glance at Arjuna, but received a helpless shrug from his dance mate.

Arjuna relaxed noticeably as soon as Walok entered through the large wooden doors, and the crowd drew down into a low, rumbling hush.

Walok, now clothed in elegant red robes and long wing feathers, stood at the back of his chair. He placed on the table a small, ornate wooden box rimmed with gold and carved with symbols from the Old Language. The council stopped their conversation and looked over the bearded man.

With a small gesture, he invited Maituli to speak first and took his seat next to Arjuna. He shot a quick wink in Arjuna’s direction, and turned his attention to the dark-skinned, stocky woman now standing.

Maituli was barely five feet tall, with large ears and a flat nose seated under a dollop of thick brown hair. For more than thirty years, she had been the force behind the most productive pumpkin and pepper farm in the entire northeast, providing veggies to every corner of Sadutran. From years of shouting across half-acre planting fields, hers was the only voice in attendance that could fill every corner of the banquet hall.

“I would like to welcome everyone to this great feast on the eve of the twenty-eighth “Dance of the Long Feather”!” she exclaimed to clamorous applause and hoots and whistles.

“I would like to thank all of the dancers,” she nodded in the direction of the boys, “and all the peoples of Pachasan for bringing your fruits, fowl, and vegetables for us to enjoy tonight in celebration of our beautiful land and those that protect it!”

She pivoted on her heels to face Walok’s side of the table. “Every year, for thirty-odd years, my dear friend Walok would bring his blessings to my fields, and never once have we gone hungry. We are all deeply honored that Walok, esteemed shaman from the West, has been such a loyal brother to Pachasan. If you would honor us with a blessing, Walok, we would all be most grateful.”

The crowed clapped politely as Maituli returned to her seat.

Walok stood and freed a long, slender black pipe from a silk loop concealed inside his cloak. He held it at eye level, and let fall three shimmering hawk feather tied to the bowl end of the pipe. With his free hand, he flicked open the latch of his ornate box and removed a pinch of soft, moist red flower buds.

He carefully packed the buds into the smooth bowl of his ceremonial pipe, and began to speak in his smooth, booming voice. “My friends and family,” he began.

“On this auspicious evening, we send our prayers and our thanks to the Four Great Archons that have made all things possible again. We send this prayer through the smoke of the sacred Sinasho plant.” He lifted the pipe above his head, then lowered it to his heart.

“In my homeland, the Sinasho plant appeared soon after the Archons ascended and delivered our people from the pit of certain extinction. The fear was great, so great that now, so many years later, we can only wonder at the depths to which we had fallen. We feared that warmth would never return, and that no crop would ever grow again. At the bottom of that despair, a great man named Marchion set off into the Crimson Wilds and discovered a way to bring the flush back to our cheeks and the sun back to our fields.”

“It was on that day that valiant young Lalin climbed our beautiful Mt. Chakta. Golden-haired Amalee took to the Ceru Sea, and the trickster Soonlin lept into the Mother’s Throat. On that day, the tides of fate changed, and we were given life again.”

The crowd said in unison “Osla metrio!” which in the old tongue means “It is done and we give thanks.”

Walok continued. “It is by the grace of the Four Archons and the forty-three that have beared our weight for a thousand years that we may enjoy this feast tonight!”

The crowd cheered, and Walok struck a match to light his pipe. He brought the flame to meet the red Sinasho.

“May our thanks go into this Sinasho, and out into the Universe.”

Walok took a long drag on the pipe, and suddenly his throat became seized. His face became graven and stiff, and his eyes went unfocused and horrifyingly askew. The pipe dropped from his hand.

Before Arjuna could stand to catch him, Walok had collapsed onto the table, sending plates crashing to the cold, stone floor.

wehttam
December 22nd, 2012, 06:30 AM
paragraph 9, second to last sentence, there's an extra 'you'. That was the only glaring grammatical flaw I noticed.


The section after the third break was a little bit confusing, but it flowed well enough. The cliffhanger was very well executed, too.

Overall, this story has got the I don't know what that makes a good read. I'm interested to see more.

StoneFrog
December 22nd, 2012, 12:17 PM
I love the atmosphere of the ceremony, i could feel the warmth of the (tribe?). The description of the dance i found very clear and natural, i could keep a good track of the whole ceremony and how the dance was going, without feeling overloaded with information. The story of Lalin, was captivating, allowing me to really get into the dance and ceremony. If i had to pick something out. I'd have to say the use of units of time threw me a bit. To me if felt a bit out of place, and i would of gone with a looser description of time.

"Within the first twenty minutes, the stress in your mind and the tension in your body should be gone."

To me that doesn't sound like something a shaman would say, its a very little thing which i picked up on.

monseratthefool
December 22nd, 2012, 03:54 PM
Thanks so much for the reviews, friends. StoneFrog, I like the suggestion of using something looser, like "After some time..." as opposed to "After twenty minutes". I agree, less sharp and more appropriate for the shaman character.

Ariel
December 26th, 2012, 03:56 PM
I found a few areas where the tenses don't match and one instance where there are unnecessary commas. As I'm on my phone I can't really peg them out for you.

Overall, I loved reading this. I was instantly transported to this world and it was very clear and immediate.

monseratthefool
December 26th, 2012, 06:00 PM
Thank you so much amsawtell, I'll give it a good read for tense consistency. Thank you so much for the review, I'm so pleased that you enjoyed! There's a tiny excerpt from Chapter 2 if you are interested. Much appreciation for your time, cheers!