Σάββατο, 12 Ιανουαρίου 2013

The Trials of the Great God

The Shaman's Daughter

Great drums beat in the jungle. Taut skins and hollowed logs echo with strange rhythm, as they’re struck with bare hands and short clubs, their ends wrapped in thick cloth.
Some beat a slow, steady rhythm every hour. These beats the animals do not fear, because they have found out that they mean them no harm. They also mean that there will be no hunt for today. They mean that they should not watch for any hidden snares, or fear the sudden appearance of stone-tipped arrows, aimed toward their hearts, their wings, their stomachs.
Sometimes, the drums beat a faster rhythm. This makes the animals feel uneasy, because it means that the great hunters with skins black as old tree bark have spotted fair game. They have learned that the short, rapping sounds mean big game; they mean antelopes, which run as fast as their long legs would take them. They mean zebras, which shake their manes and huddle together, pushing the weakest to the edges of the herd. They mean hogs, who grind their great tusks against tree bark and stone, sharpening them to a fine edge, their minds filled with murderous thoughts.

Other times, the rhythm is slow and steady, meaning smaller game. Like one, the birds and the monkeys leave the branches and scream hysterically, praying to some strange animal god that the arrow and the snare will not get them, that they’ll fly and climb away and that it won’t be them that die today.
Other times, the drums beat another rhythm, that the animals cannot decipher. The larger animals look around, scenting the air, but they can make no sense out of it. The smaller animals leap from branch to branch and hiss or screech, but they can’t make out whose turn it’s going to be today. Then they see men rise from the foliage, men who are also the color of old tree bark, but dressed in strange headdresses made from the feathers of great birds and shields made from straw and the hides of great animals. They scatter then, thinking it’s a surprise attack and hide until they’re gone, until the great screams and cries cease from the jungle. More men reach the clearings then, and toss the newcomers onto the ground, leaving them for the animals to feast on.
But this time, like every time once every ten years, the beat was different. It was a manic, quick burst of noise that echoed through the trees. The animals stood deathly still for a while and so did the men. And they all prayed to their gods that they heard wrong, that they had gone mad or that they were just sick or distracted. But then the noise echoed again: short, manic and unbroken and they all fled, knowing exactly what it meant:
The Great God Spider was coming.

Its shadow fell across the jungle. Its legs, thick as redwood trunks and covered in coarse hair, swayed in the wind. Its eyes scanned the jungle and whatever they noticed grew suddenly very ill and died, dropping lifelessly onto the leafy ground. Its mandibles click and drip poison that splashed on the ground and burned great holes, where no plant would grow again.
Sometimes the Great God Spider would go this way, turning its body toward the place where the sun rises. Others, it would go toward the mountains, where the night is born. There, it would find a village of men and pick from their number a child. Sometimes it was a boy, sometimes it was a girl. Sometimes it was beautiful, sometimes it was not. Sometimes it was strong and healthy, other times weak and burning with fever. But it would always choose a child, then turn back and find a great hole in the ground or some other great dark place and spin a web that was bigger than any house and lay there, waiting for the child to be brought before it. Then it would click its mandibles and block the exit with a great rock and there would only be shrill cries that ended abruptly.
That time, the Great God Spider headed toward the source of the Ola river and crossed its waters and shed its great shadow over the village of the Obataiye tribe. Its scouts had seen it and spread the terrible news and the children were lined up before the Great God Spider, their mothers behind them staring back at the creature with eyes dripping hate, the fathers silently moving their lips in prayer. All the children stared at the Great God Spider with eyes full of wonder, the kind of wonder only young minds can experience when facing some incomprehensible terror.
Every child, except for Chaniya. Chaniya, the shaman’s daughter. Chaniya, the girl that was taller than every boy in the village. Chaniya, who knew no fear and once walked all up to a sleeping lion and patted its fur and the children swore they saw her stare it down when it woke up, until it backed down and went to sleep again.
She did not look away. She did not pray and she did not marvel at the Great God Spider. She merely stood there, her hands balled into fists, her eyes staring deeply into the great black spheres that adorned the creature’s head.
Some say that Chaniya mouthed some challenge then. Others say that the Great God Spider had become offended, or that she flashed him some vulgar gesture that enraged it.No matter what happened, what’s important is that it chose her. Its great limb rose in the air and its tip poked her chest making her stumble back and then it turned and walked away.
And all around her she could hear the women shout their thanks to the heavens as they held their children and the men beat their chests and shed great tears of joy, because it wasn’t their children the beast had chosen. It hadn’t chosen their most precious treasures, no. It had not hurt the future wives and milkmaids and warriors and hunters. It had chosen the shaman’s daughter, the silent, ugly thing with eyes that could stare through stone and a tongue sharp enough to cut a man twice her age in half.
The women of course retreated into their houses and wore their red shawls, for mourning and the men did walk to the shaman, who had buried his face in his hands and wept silently, not daring to face his daughter, his knees almost falling from under him as he was shown inside his own hut. Rites were spoken and songs were sung and Chaniya was presented with a pair of hide slippers that would allow her to climb to the Great God Spider’s resting place and she was given the best food and the choicest nuts and milk.
But Chaniya would have none of it. She threw the dishes offered on the ground and smashed the jug of milk, to the horror of her fellow villagers. Then she walked inside and shook her father, who had been curled in his bed, crying the whole time.
“I do not want to die.” She told her father matter-of-factly. “I will not dress myself in fancy clothes and fatten myself up like I’m a cow so I can fill the Great God’s belly. I will not cry and I won’t stand those happy songs.”
“You won’t go?” her father said, his lips trembling. “But if the Great God is not appeased, it will come back and destroy our village. It will eat every child and sink its poisonous teeth into every man and woman! You will doom us all with your stubbornness, my daughter!”
Chaniya growled then and her father shrunk, despite himself. She seemed much taller for a moment.
“I will go, father, but I will not go to die. I will go to fight the Great God and kill it. But if I cannot kill it, I will make sure it will remember me forever.”
“Fight the Great God? Poor daughter of mine, have you gone mad? You cannot hold a spear and you can’t carry a shield! You cannot even shoot an arrow!”
“No, but I can use great knives, like the ones we use for cutting hard meat and I can wear woven straws under my skirt. And as for arrows, what use will I have of them inside the Great God’s cave?”
“The God of War and the God of Men will not allow it. It is blasphemy for whoever isn’t a warrior to wield a weapon and draw blood with it.”
“Then make me a warrior, father of mine! Make me pass the trials and measure my worth! I know the rites as well as you do, don’t I? Gather round the wise men and tell them that this is what I asked. After all, what harm could a doomed little daughter do?”
And the shaman got up and wore his great ebony mask and convened with the elders and the first hunter. He told them of his daughter’s request. There was uproarious laughter at first, but then there was a long, pondering silence. They talked late into the night and spoke at first of blasphemy and terrible retribution. A goat was sacrificed and the girl’s future was read in its entrails. The answer was revealed to them then, clear as the light of day:
The girl was doomed. Therefore, to allow her this small consolation would make no difference.
But that did not mean they would make it easy for her. She was, after all, just a girl. And for a girl to become a warrior two years before any other boy her age would be preposterous.
“You will bring us a dozen feathers from a great sunbird’s tail.” They demanded.

The Sunbird

And so Chaniya, who had known of the resting places of sunbirds and their myths and had learned their ways of lie by her father, walked toward the sun’s cradle and climbed up a cliff, wearing her brand new shoes, the ones that would take her to the Great God’s lair. She climbed to the top of the cliff and there she found a tree, its bark a perfect golden hue, streaked with flecks of red, its great leaves the color of a puff adder’s head. She climbed up its great branches and heard the chirps and cries of the sunbirds’ young, calling for their mother. In a heartbeat, she crawled inside the nest and grabbed the cracked pieces of the eggs and wrapped them around her, disguising herself for a young that had not yet hatched and waited.
Sure enough, the mother came, beating its wings and clicking its beak letting out deafening squawks that soothed her young. It fed them with bits of shark and sides of cow and lion, then lay on her nest and slept, its wings cradling her young.
When she was deep in sleep, Chaniya crept from under her, her great knife in hand and stuck the great bird at the back of the head, killing it in one stroke. Then she plucked the feathers and returned to her village, where she lay them at the elders’ feet. They gawked and tried to protest but they could not. The girl had won, fair and square. The first hunter said then, his voice a low rumble:
“You will brings us a front tooth of the Ninki Nanka.”

The village gasped and her father shouted in protest, but Chaniya had already left. She headed toward the jungle and lay beneath a tree and thought of the Ninki Nanka, the great beast that trampled trees and slid on its belly. She thought of its great claws and its tail, whiplike and twice as long as a man and for a moment she thought she should turn back. But she wrapped her hands around her and leaned her head down. She bit her lip until it bled and her fear left her. She slept halfway through trying to come up with a plan.
She woke that morning to the sound of a lioness, growling at her with her teeth bared, mere inches away from her face. She should have felt fear, but the terror of dying at the hands of the Great God Spider was greater. A plan was hatched.
“You call these little things teeth?” she said, laughing at the beast.
“They’re good enough for me” said the lioness.
“Bah! I bet those little hairpins you’ve got in your mouth can’t even chew properly!”
“Think I won’t eat you now, little woman?”
“No, go ahead! After all, what’s the worst you can do?” she said and reached out her arm. The lioness immediately sank her teeth in her hand, ripping through her sleeve. But they got stuck in the twined reeds under the fabric and did not reach the skin. The lioness thrashed and growled, but try as she might, she could not taste her flesh. Crestfallen, she let go.
“See? No good after all! You know who has proper teeth? The Ninki Nanka! I bet it could chew me up good!”
“The crawling lizard? That fat, sluggish thing? That’s no proper animal!”
“What’s wrong, are you jealous?”
The lioness growled then and roared and ran along with the girl. She spoke with her sisters who swore at Chaniya and were enraged at the mere thought that any animal in the jungle could be any better at anything than they were. So they got together and went to see their husbands, who lay in the shade on their regal backs, their bellies greeting the midday sun.
“The Ninki Nanka has better teeth than we do! Bigger too!” the lionesses cried.
“Nonsense!” said the oldest lion, scratching at his ear. “A lion’s teeth and jaws are the most powerful teeth and jaws under the sun!”
“No, they cannot even bite through that girls’ clothes!” the lionesses replied. At the sound of that, the lions looked at each other and suddenly felt uneasy. They stared at the girl and saw the places where their wives had tested their teeth, but neither smelled nor saw even one drop of blood.
“To admit that any animal, let alone the Ninki Nanka, the crawling lizard is better than a lion would be madness.” Said the eldest lion. “Our course of action is made apparent. If the Ninki Nanka has better teeth, then we shall take away his teeth so it can’t bite any more!”
And so the lions gathered the creatures of the jungle and sent them after the Ninki Nanka. They tore the jungle apart to find it and when they did, they fell upon it with great rage and toppled it over, then ordered the elephants to pull out its teeth. All the while, the great lizard crawled and cried and kept swearing at their lions for their injustice, but the lions paid no attention to him. They left it a single tooth, in a singular display of mercy, then let it go, with its head hung low, ashamed.
Chaniya waited until the lions were gone, then she took the fallen teeth and strapped them on her back and headed toward her village. She threw the teeth down on the elders’ feet and laughed at them.
“Here’s almost every tooth it’s got!” she said, holding her belly.
The elders looked at the teeth with horror and fascination. There was no doubt about it; the girl had almost become a warrior. One last trial remained:
“You will bring with you a sliver of the rainbow.” Her father spoke and wished that his daughter would stop then, that she’d protest and cry foul at the elders and the trial would stop and he could take her in his arms and hold her just one more day before she had to be taken to the Great God as sacrifice. But when Chaniya spat on the ground and walked away, he felt his chest swell with great pride.
Chaniya knew the test was meant to be impossible, but then again, she was the shaman’s daughter. She knew that she would never find the rainbow unless she had a god’s aid. So she turned to the only spirit that could help her.
She walked to the great crossroads that had been carved by men who were dead years before even her father’s grandfather was born and smeared her clothes with red clay. There, she kicked at the stone edged borders, bending them out of shape and tossed fallen branches over the paved road. She howled and kicked at some more rocks, when she heard the honey-suckle sweet voice behind her:
“That’s not a very nice thing to do, little girl. Are you trying to get a god mad?”
She turned then and saw Elegua, the Messenger, dressed in a cloak red as the clay on her clothes, his skin so black it blended in with the night. He chewed on a straw and crossed his hands, his eyes great slits, his mouth puckered like her father’s before a thrashing.
Elegua, god of the corssroads
“I…” she said, feinting to stutter “I am so sorry, but I am lost and I fell into a mud pit and I can’t find my way home!”
“And you thought that getting back home was worth angering the messenger of the gods, little girl?”
“I can’t stay here! I’m not used to the jungle! I can’t sleep under a tree and a lion might eat me!” she cried great fake tears that blotted the clay from her clothes.
Elegua’s expression softened then and he kneeled beside her.
“Now, now, little girl. You know I can’t stand to watch a little thing cry. Tell me, where is your home. Who is your father? I promise I’ll take you to him.”
“You promise?” she said, sniffing her nose. The god nodded yes.
“My home is in the heavens and my father is Gunab!” she said and the god took a step back.
“Your father is the god of death?”
“Yes! And he lets me shoot some arrows at men sometimes and other times, he lets me throw pebbles at them! And I live in his great hut, in the base of the rainbow!”
Elegua bared his teeth then, as he realized the trouble he’d gotten himself into. He’d given his word, to a child nonetheless and there was nothing he could do about it.
“Very well then, child. Climb on my back and I’ll take you there!”
And Chaniya climbed on his back and the messenger god took three great steps. On the first, he was at the edges of the jungle, his feet touching the savannah. On the second, he was halfway across the world, his feet at the bank of a great lake in a place Chaniya had never seen before.
On the third, Elegua was standing at the threshold of Gunab’s great hut, from which the rainbow sprang, looking down at the edge of the world. He sighed as he looked around, then felt something tugging at his ankles. He tried to get it off him, but found that he could not break his bonds.
“It’s made from the bark of the Umdlebhi plant. You can’t break it. Now wait one minute.”

She bound his wrists together and walked inside Gunab’s hut, where she saw the god sleeping, wrapped in the rainbow like some great dead worm. He was huge, three times bigger than a man and his face was long and bony. He was grinning in his sleep and speaking terrible curses that Chaniya could not even imagine they existed. He turned in his sleep and the hut shook around him. The girl held back a scream, as she thought the god was about to open his eyes. She kneeled beside him and cut a piece of the rainbow. She’d have walked outside, had she not seen his great bow and his quiver of arrows left unattended beside him, by a great jug of cider.
She walked slowly to the quiver and took an arrow, wrapping the sliver of rainbow round its tip, so she would not get scratched, knowing this would kill her instantly. She also undid the cord of his bow, for good measure. She took the jug of cider and she would have gotten out, had she not stepped on a rat that crawled from a hole in the hut’s wall. It screeched loud and shrilly, waking up Gunab.
Gunab, the Miser

The god of death shot up from his bed, tossing his rainbow sheet aside and roaring a terrible roar. It sounded like a wounded man, screaming for the sweet release of death after a great fever and at the same time sounded like the cry of a hyena, deprived of food for days. His great yellow eyes stared at her and Chaniya shrank before his gaze, feeling suddenly violently ill.
Without a word, the god of death reached for his bow as the girl turned to run and knocked an arrow, but found that his cord was loose. Letting another howl, he rushed through the door of his hut, clicking his long yellowed teeth; click-click-clik!
Chaniya ran to Elegua and cut the straps that bound him. The messenger laughed as he stared at Gunab , poor old miserable Gunab, tricked by the same little girl. He grabbed her and took three steps, leaving her in his ruined crossroads. He laughed again then, laughed until his belly ached and his knees let go and he was in the middle of the crossroads, his eyes tearing up. When he was done, he swept them off his face and smiled at Chaniya.
“You are a mad little girl and I will not have anything to do with you anymore. I should have left you to the lions in the veldt, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it after what you did to that miser Gunab.” The god’s face was stern once again and she knew she had angered him.
“For my brashness and my recklessness, I offer you this jug of cider, then. It’s from Gunab’s great hut, the liquor he keeps only to himself.”
Elegua’s face suddenly lit up and he pat her on the head.
“You sure have a way with gods, little devil” he said, taking the jug off her hands. “Heavens forbid I run into you again.” And with that, he took a sip of the jug and one great step and he was gone.
Chaniya returned to her village with a sliver of the rainbow in hand and an arrow from Gunab’s quiver hidden inside her sack and she was a warrior now, in the sight of both the gods and her people. And the shaman rejoiced, the warriors felt humbled yet uneasy, the children stared at the warrior girl with eyes full of wonder.
On her arms, her father drew shapes that would bequeath the spirits of war for a steady hand in combat and unerring blows. On her legs, he drew the shapes of cheetahs, to request their speed. On her chest, he drew great shapes like faces without features, their eyes staring unblinkingly at sword and spear, unafraid of death. On her cheeks and forehead, he drew whirls that would be her new eyes, to look for hidden enemies.
She was given a shield and a spear. She refused to take a bow and arrows. Instead, she took one of the Ninkia Nanka’s longest teeth and strapped her great knife into her belt. She took a torch and flint and kissed her father and waved her people goodbye.
Her shoes split and the soles broke as she climbed the rocks and reached the Great God Spider’s threshold. She saw the great rock that was set aside from the entrance and noticed the gleam of the sun’s rays on the great web. She noticed the shape of the Great God, the humongous mass of hair, as it climbed from its web and touched the cave’s floor. She felt its eyes size her up, felt its fangs click with anticipation. The Great God was hungry. She’d give him a meal he would surely remember.
Chaniya walked inside the cave and saw the Spider quiver delightedly. Its hairs bristled, quaking the web it had spun, causing every bat and creature caught in its strands to squeal in terror. She felt her courage almost drain out of her then, her every thought turn to water and run down her brain toward her feet. She could still run, she thought. She could still get away, if she ran right now.
But that would doom her people. No. To save herself in exchange for her village was unthinkable. She steeled herself, gritted her teeth and wrapped her hands around the shaft of the death god’s arrow. She waited, as the Great God leaned down and brought its face on level with hers. She held back her disgust as she felt the wind rise from between its fangs and saw her own distorted reflection repeated seven times, once for each of its eyes. It reached out its leg, the tip pushing against the rock, as it bared it bared its mandibles that dripped poison, leaning toward her. Chaniya screamed, as her hands fumbled for the arrow.
She found it and she drew it from behind her and stuck it in the Great God’s eye. She saw it sink inside the black surface and watched it ripple like the water in the bottom of an unclean well. Then she fell back, as the Great God let out a scream, filled with both terror and disbelief.
Chaniya moved around it, avoiding the mad thrashing of its limbs and struck the flint. The first time, sparks flew but she failed to ignite the torch. The Great God slammed its leg on the cave wall above her head and she tried again; this time, the torch head ignited and she laughed as she tossed it against the web.
The Great God watched in horror with its remaining eyes, as its great web took light. With its legs and body, it tried to smother the flames, but they spread faster, much more hungrily than it could quench them. Taking advantage of its panic, she ran outside, stood behind the great rock and shoved the great tooth of the Ninki Nanka under it, then pushed.
The tooth broke, but not before forcing the rock to roll down and shut the entrance to the cave. Terrified, she watched one of the Great God’s legs reach out to stop it, but it was crushed flat at the joint and severed, as the rock slid into place. She saw whiffs of smoke spill out from around the rock and heard the Great God scream for a long while, until finally there was silence.
Chaniya came back, covered in soot, the Great God’s wicked claw in her hands. And the village rejoiced and its people laughed and danced and the great drums beat a new rhythm that sang of her victory, radiating outward across the earth and reaching even the edges of the world, where the gods dwelt. And they in turn rejoiced and they all drank from the jug of Gunab’s cider. And even Gunab, the great miser god of death, claimed that he forgot to tie the cord of his arrow that day and claimed he had caught a cold and could not (or would not) take shots at the men and animals.
And in her village, Chaniya showed the other girls how to fight and overcome the warrior’s ritual. She taught them how to use cunning and she told them about the mysteries of the spirits and instructed them them to always leave a jug of cider by the crossroads for the messenger.
She grew into a woman and took her father’s place as shaman, but also joined the men in the hunts and in war. She was a fierce figure and her village (and soon enough, every village) followed her teachings; it’s said that to this day, there are no fiercer warriors than the women of the Omataiye tribe.
And the Great God? Not a word was heard of it again. Only a great sign was painted on the rock that blocked its entrance, a sign that meant death and freedom and hope and the drums never beat their manic rhythm ever again.

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